And I owe my career, my artisan’s satisfaction and any morality I might lay claim to as a person to art, to writing, to—for example—a single scene in a drama that haunted me in my childhood and has ever since. In the drama a man who was not a torturer, but who was weak, stood in a torture chamber and was handed a pair of pliers—and there was the torture victim and there was the torturer and there were the pliers and there was the unspoken assurance that if the weak man did not torture he would be tortured and there was the pause. And that drama, by German screenwriter Lukas Heller who was born in Kiel in 1930—asked me and still asks me—and what would you do? How weak are you? How best can you control your weakness and your desire for self-preservation—how do you prevent your fall and keep yourself and others truly safe?
And the how is what art always tells us—amongst everything else that it shows us and tells us. And it makes me think of lines from Heine’s poem—Allnächtlich im Traume—which is large enough to be about more than one kind of love…
Du sagst mir heimlich ein leises Wort,
Und gibst mir den Strauß von Zypressen.
Ich wache auf, und der Strauß ist fort,
Und das Wort hab ich vergessen.
As writers and artists we keep hold of the cypress that reminds us we all die and that we should be merciful and we serve the dreams that come to us to be expressed. We make them articulate and let them join the larger dreams that others make for us, the dreams that form our culture. Our culture makes the reality we inhabit. As artists, as writers, we are paid to dream awake and that is very nice for us. As human beings, which is more important, we have a duty never to forget those secret words we hear in darkness and to guard each other from the worst of who we can be, the worst of worlds that we can make and to do better. And we can love that, we can love that loudly.
—A.L. Kennedy, acceptance speech for the Heine Prize 2016